A Simple Solution to the STEM Crisis: Do We Have the Will to Lead the Way?

09/27/2016 02:27 pm ET

The key to making America greater may not lie in harkening back to a race and gender-biased past, but rather in harnessing the strength of our collective brainpower to build a globally competitive future.

Although an answer to inequities in STEM education may now be within reach, the magnitude of the current problem is truly shocking.

For instance, the United States only has about 1/3 of the physics teachers that we need for all of our high school students to have access to physics.

Despite the deluge of noise among politicians and press about the importance of “inspiring” students to pursue STEM Education, a basic issue is that courses such as physics are simply not offered in many schools, nor available to most students.

Not surprisingly, the statistics are even more extreme for under served minorities and girls. In 2014, African Americans took Advanced Placement Physics exams at one-fourth the rate of other students, while Hispanics and women took it at about half the rate of their white, male peers.

Just imagine how much of our potential advancement as a nation is now being lost to educational neglect.

Access to STEM education is not only an issue of global competitiveness, but also of social justice. Mathematically rigorous physics is required by almost all STEM college or university majors. And there has been a steady increase in the number of well-paying jobs requiring knowledge of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, along with a commensurate decline in jobs that do not. Providing all students with a path to university-level study and equal opportunity to high paying and rewarding careers is only fair.

While not all students may want to attend college, never mind pursue a STEM career path, foundational STEM skills not only give them that option, but also improve their abilities in analytical thinking, provide them with the confidence to effectively perform in broader aspects of their lives, and raise the quality of our workforce as a whole.

Finally, American students’ access to STEM education is a matter of national security, as many jobs that keep a country safe from military, financial or cyber threats must be performed by citizens with a security clearance: they cannot be outsourced.

Thus, it is one of the most pressing needs in our country. We need tens of thousands of additional physics teachers…and, they must be effective at teaching all students, not just "elite" students. We need to demystify physics and increase access, not send the message that only "special" people can understand it.

Traditional routes to becoming a physics teacher are producing only a few hundred physics teachers a year, against a need of tens of thousands. We simply can’t wait for traditional approaches to meet this vast education gap.

The New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning has been working to shake up the status quo with a new collaborative approach to learning for both students and teachers. Our perspective is that teaching is an exceptionally hard skill to learn, but that learning the building blocks of science is comparatively easy. Thus we have developed a 12 to 18 month program to turn educators from any field into top-notch STEM educators.

We began producing new physics teachers in 2009. And I am happy to report that we have been the largest producer of physics teachers in the United States every year since then, producing teachers with gender and ethnic diversity that matches that of the country; teachers who serve as role models to their students. These new teachers have dramatically improved access to New Jersey students of all backgrounds, including high school girls and students of color.

Research studies, such as a recent report by Hanover Research (http://njc.tl/1b8), document the dramatic effect of this work on raising student outcomes and improving equity. Fortunately, this solution would not be difficult to implement in every state across the country.

We are now at a pivotal moment where solving our national STEM education crisis may simply have become a matter of the will to do so. The key question is: Do we have the will to lead the way?

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